Goethe wrote this poem in May 1797. It initiated a whole series of ballads which were to be published in the 1798 Musenalmanach
. Schiller was immediately enthusiastic about it. It is no surprise that it was a text which had to be learned by heart by countless schoolchildren in the German Democratic Republic during the fifties; one need only glance at the last three lines and the poem's attitude to material riches. Goethe got the idea from a sixteenth-century woodcut which he found in Spalatin's German translation of Petrarch's dialogue De remidiis utriusque fortunae
. This shows three groups of treasure-seekers and Satanists, including four men in a magic circle terrified by a visitation from the Devil. By contrast, another group consults a magic book and is approached by a boy with a chalice which is surrounded by glorious rays of light like the Holy Grail. The rhyme scheme (abbcaddc) is extremely ingenious: in the first verse for example the ear expects a rhyme at the end of the fourth line to to match 'Herzen' at the end of the first, but this comes only at the end of the fifth line; similarly 'Gut' seems abandoned at the end of the fourth line and only finds its echo right at the end of the strophe. This technical device exactly mirrors the falsely aroused hopes of the treasure-seeker and the deceptions of his calling. Schubert's chorus-like repetition of the last line to make effectively a nine-line strophe is not the happiest of his inspirations, for it seems to turn the ballad into a drinking song.
It is easy to see why this poem appealed to the young Schubert. The second verse in particular casts a spell which is reminiscent of some of the composer's early ballads with their ghostly encounters, black-hearted villains and maidens in distress. But because the poem was by Goethe it seems that the composer was inhibited by it and lacked the confidence to treat it in a more openly narrative manner. The restraint he displayed in setting Der Gott und die Bajadere had some point, but here we require more magic, particularly at the moment when a money-grabbing life is changed into one of spiritual enlightenment. Of course it is fine as far as it goes; Schubert finds an effective bass voice tessitura for the character, and the minor-key melody is a good one. There are nice decorative touches like the trills in the postlude to each verse. It is just that the rippling quaver accompaniment seems rather sedate and the simple change to the major key predictable and tame at the appearance of the Grail-like light and the angelic boy. In Loewe's setting of twenty years later the treasure-seeker's world in A minor is suddenly dislocated and transformed by a succession of exquisitely daring G sharps. This is one of the few Goethe settings which did not make its way into either of the two volumes that Schubert prepared for the poet in 1816. It seems fair to say therefore that the composer himself did not count it a success.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995